Zaharias, Babe Didrikson (1911–1956)
Zaharias, Babe Didrikson (1911–1956)
Premiere woman athlete of the 20th century who excelled in track and field, basketball, softball, and golf; was co-founder of the Ladies' Professional Golf Association; won three Olympic medals; and was voted Woman Athlete of the Year six times. Name variations: Mildred Didrikson; Mildred Didrikson Zaharias. Pronunciation: DID-rik-son Za-HARE-e-us. Born Mildred Ella Didriksen on June 26, 1911 (some sources, including the Texas State Historical Marker at her gravesite, state 1913, others 1914 or 1915, but 1911 is documented), in the oil refining town of Port Arthur, Texas, in the southeast portion of the state; died in Galveston, Texas, at the University of Texas Medical Branch on September 26, 1956; sixth of seven children of Ole Didriksen, Sr. (a Norwegian-born merchant mariner and ship's carpenter) and Hannah Marie Olson Didriksen (a Norwegian-born washerwoman); attended public school through grade eleven, at Magnolia Elementary, David Crockett Junior High School, and Beaumont High School, in first Port Arthur, then Beaumont, Texas, 17 miles inland; married George Zaharias (a professional wrestler and occasional entrepreneur), in 1938; lived with Betty Dodd; no children.
chosen two-time All-American in basketball (1931–32); won AAU javelin toss (1930) with a throw of 133′6" (an AAU-U.S. record); won Women's National AAU championship with a broad jump of 17′11¾" (1931); as a one-woman "team," won the championship of the Amateur Athletic Union Track and Field Meet (1932) in the following five events: shot put with a throw of 39′6¼" (AAU-U.S. record), baseball throw, 272′2" (a record she would break at 296′ which still stands since the event was phased out), javelin with 139′3" (world record), 80-meter hurdles in 12.1 seconds (she won one heat in 11.9, which was one-tenth of a second better than her previous accepted world record), high jump with 17′6", and fourth in the discus; won six gold medals and set four world records "in the space of three hours in a single afternoon"; at Olympic Games held in Los Angeles, California (1932), won a gold medal in 80-meter hurdles in 11.7 seconds (world and American record), and javelin toss, 143′4" (world and Olympic record), also received controversial gold-silver medal for high jump, 5′5¼" (she was denied a pure gold because of her "unorthodox" jumping style); won record-setting 13 (erroneously claimed as 17) consecutive amateur golf tournaments; inducted into the Texas Sport Hall of Fame by the Texas Sports Writers Association, the LPGA Hall of Fame, the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame, the Helms Athletic Foundation Hall of Fame (for basketball), and the Professional Golfers' Hall of Fame; given the Graham McNamee Memorial Award as the greatest woman athlete in history by the Sports Broadcasters' Association; given the Associated Press' Woman of the Half Century Award; voted "Woman Athlete of the Year" six times by the Associated Press; voted "Woman of the Year" (1947); given the William D. Richardson Memorial Trophy for outstanding contribution to golf by the Golf Writers' Association of America; awarded the American Cancer Society Certificate of Appreciation "for notable assistance in the Crusade to Conquer Cancer"; granted two Los Angeles Times Merit Awards; given the Philadelphia Sports Writers' Association "Most Courageous Athlete of 1953" award; granted the Ben Hogan Comeback Player of the Year Award (1954); given the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Outstanding Woman Athlete of the Half Century award; given the Brith Shalom National Sport Award for sportsmanship, fair play and courage; named the Greatest Woman Athlete of the Past 50 Years, by the nation's Associated Press Sports Writers' Association; named Greatest Sportswoman of All-Time by the Zonta Club of Fort Worth, Texas; named Player of the Decade, 1938–47, by Golf's Centennial; given the Optimist International Award; honored on a U.S. commemorative stamp (September 22, 1981).
Family moved to Beaumont, Texas (1914); left Beaumont High School in senior year to play semiprofessional basketball for Employer's Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas, Texas; competed in AAU Track and Field championships in Chicago (1932); competed in Olympic Games in Los Angeles (1932); supported herself and her large family with her harmonica playing, doing one-on-one demonstrations with male pros in a variety of sports, and playing for the all-male, all bearded House of David Baseball Team (late 1932–34); pursued bowling and tennis (1934–36); continuously hampered by contradictory rules of athletic amateurism which blunted her opportunities in several sports; successfully sought own legal emancipation so she could better negotiate her financialdealings; pursued golf diligently and was an astounding success in women's amateur golf circles (1935 on); sat out competitive play (late 1930s–early 1940s) due to loss of amateur standing; regained amateur standing and established herself as one of golf's dominant players (1943–45); won 13 (claimed 17) consecutive amateur golf tournaments (1945–47); was the first American woman to win British Women's Open (1947); co-founded LPGA (late 1940s); was a member of Walker Cup Team that defeated British players (1948–49); was the leading money winner several years running; diagnosed with colon cancer (1953); underwent colostomy; believed herself cured thus postured bravely as one "who conquered cancer"; cancer returned (1955); despite illness, mounted a stunning comeback to continue winning; received American Cancer Society Sword of Hope Award from President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1955); served as president of the LPGA (through 1955); succumbed to cancer after much pain and public fund raising on behalf of cancer education and research.
Championship Golf (1948); This Life I've Led (an as-told-to autobiography with Harry Paxton, 1955).
After her stunning wins at the 1932 AAU meet and Olympics, a reporter asked the athletic marvel Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson, "Babe, I hear you play basketball, softball, swim, dive, shoot billiards and wrestle. Is there any game you don't play?" "Yeah," drawled the quick-tongued Babe, "dolls." She was a unique character.
Zaharias grew up in the working-class oil refining towns of Port Arthur and Beaumont, Texas. Her parents encouraged the development of her athleticism; her father built a rustic gymnasium in the back yard. Babe was very much a street-wise roughneck who did not shirk from fisticuffs, daring challenges, and contests against boys her age and much older. In fact, for many years of her youth she enjoyed doing the unconventional, like flipping the captain of the high school football team or punching fellow classmates in the hall. Some of her stunts were undeniably dangerous, like greasing the streetcar tracks and disconnecting the cars from one another; on one occasion she almost fell beneath the wheels. These antics did not always endear her to her peers; she was at times overly self-confident, abrasive, and physically rough. But if you were lucky enough to be on her team, victory was assured. Part of Babe's atypical behavior, even for working-class, ethnic East Texas girls, was how diligently she shunned stereotypical female pursuits such as housekeeping, interest in boys, and attention to one's beautification and appearance. Her quip that she would rather play any game other than dolls shows the disdain she had for the sedate and controlled expectations of femininity.
Born in Port Arthur, Texas, on June 26, 1911, Didrikson was the sixth of seven children of Ole Didriksen, Sr., and Hannah Marie Olson Didriksen . (When Babe's name was spelled Didrikson incorrectly on her school registration card, she chose to keep the spelling.) Both her parents had recently immigrated from Norway after Ole had satisfied governmental requirements that proved he could support himself for three years in America before sending for his family. In fact, three of Babe's siblings were born in Norway. Theirs was a tight-knit family where love abounded. Her mother, who spoke in broken English mixed with Norwegian, nicknamed her daughter Mildred Ella baden which meant baby, even though she wasn't the youngest. Family members claim that it's from this that Babe got her nickname. But Babe as an adult liked to tell that she was nicknamed "Babe" after Babe Ruth, the great Yankee slugger-pitcher, because she could hit the ball as hard and far as he could. This type of exaggeration was something Babe employed often. In fact, her father, who worked at times as a merchant mariner, would gather his family around him and tell hair-raising stories of clinging to mastposts as ships broke up in storms. Hence Babe learned the art of storytelling from her father. Throughout her life she gladly stretched the truth—or created a false story—if its dramatic impact would portray her favorably.
In order to help support their large family, Hannah took in the neighbors' laundry, while the children pitched in. Also, as soon as each child was old enough, they were encouraged to earn money at out-of-home work. Thus, Babe combed the hair of a wealthier Norwegian woman; with this money, she bought her first harmonica and contributed some to the family coffers. As a young teen, she worked in a plant sewing up gunny sacks; later, she worked as a fruit packer. The Didricksens were a proud family and refused to accept charity, yet monies and food were acceptable when given to them out of friendship by more well-to-do Norwegian compatriots.
When Zaharias was still a child, the family relocated 17 miles inland to Beaumont, Texas, after fleeing the ravages of a coastal hurricane. It was this community that informed her youth, and to a large degree, her worldview. The politics and politicians of Beaumont, prior to 1930, were literally controlled by the Ku Klux Klan—a white supremacist group that disdained blacks and Jews and used violence to enforce their views. Babe absorbed some of these views, although as her fame grew she tried to deny or cover up her racial biases. Also, by joining in with these dominant ideals that scorned nonwhites Zaharias, following her family's lead, diligently embraced things more "American" than ethnic.
Babe was not an easy child to raise, or to discipline, a task which typically fell to Hannah. Zaharias followed her instincts; she was drawn toward any game, competition, bet or date. She routinely dirtied and tore her dresses, and, on one occasion, having been sent to the store for hamburger, she stopped at a ballpark to join a game on the way home and stray dogs devoured the meat. Hannah, who was preparing a party for sister Lillie's graduation, was angry. Zaharias "felt real bad about the way I'd let her down on a night when she had so much to do." From then on, Babe resolved she was going to do everything she could to ease Hannah's life; she honored this resolution throughout her adult years.
Neighbors, in oral interviews given in the 1970s, recalled Babe as "the worst kid in Doucette Street," while her teachers and peers from Magnolia Elementary School recall her as charming, mischievous, and a "character." As Zaharias advanced to David Crockett Junior High, her competitiveness towards boys and her general lack of interest in girls' games and their friendship heightened. In 1933, she told a reporter from the North American Newspaper Alliance: "As far back as I can remember I played with boys rather than girls…. The girls did not play games that interested me. I preferred baseball, football, foot-racing and jumping, with the boys, to hop-scotch and jacks and dolls, which were about the only things girls did…. I guess the habit of playing with boys made me too rough for the girls' games. Anyway, I found them too tame." She was popular with many, although she was clearly a ruffian whom some of her schoolmates feared and avoided. This dichotomous reaction to Babe intensified as she grew older: she evoked strong emotions—from adoration to active dislike. In a sense, her behavior made her an outcast among both boys and girls, unless they were competing in a game; then everyone wanted to be on Babe's team.
Zaharias' "ways" were crystallized and accentuated at Beaumont High School. Prime among them were athletic ability, physical and verbal rowdiness, friendliness, and practical jokes. The athlete took the school by storm. She
was blessed with raw talent and virtuoso skill in widely diverse sports. At Beaumont High, she was on both the golf and tennis teams as well as the all-white girls' basketball team. She was such a fine athlete that the school's football coach actually considered letting her kick for the football team—but this never came to fruition.
Commencing in 1928 and continuing thereafter, descriptions of Babe in the press (where her athletic accomplishments were charted) often read like chronicles of a "third sex." Reporters' notes resound with confusion and condemnation. One wrote, "She was a thin, muscular girl with a body like a Texas cowpuncher, an unfeminine looking, hard-bitten creature with nothing on her mind but setting athletic records." She is not, the columnist assured his readers, "a freakish looking character … [but a] normal, healthy, boyish-looking girl." Despite her "normalcy," the reporter noted, crowds followed her not to see her win or lose, "they just wanted to see Babe." There was, he remarked, a "strangeness and mystery about her" which fascinated the curious public.
Zaharias spoke aloud her desire to become the world's greatest athlete and diligently planned to participate in the 1932 Olympic Games. She was so determined that she went door to door to neighbors on Doucette Street and asked (told) them to trim their hedges to a certain uniform height so she could practice hurdling. They all eventually complied. It was that kind of assertiveness and self-confidence that made Babe excel—and irked her opponents.
When Babe was playing forward for the Royal Purple Beaumont High basketball team in 1930, Colonel Melvin J. McCombs from the Employer's Casualty Insurance Company out of Dallas, Texas, came to scout her playing ability. During the 1930s, a national league of women's basketball teams, sponsored by companies, churches, and civic leagues, competed in front of sizeable crowds for considerable pay. The Women's National Basketball League, to which Employer's Casualty Company (ECC) belonged, consisted of 45 teams by 1933. McCombs was impressed with Babe's skill on the court and offered her employment as a secretary-ball player with his company. Zaharias, who had originally intended to finish high school, chose to leave in the spring of her senior year to begin with the Golden Cyclones sponsored by Employer's Casualty. Thus, Babe had several atypical opportunities for a young woman of her time: she moved several hundred miles away from parental scrutiny, earned $300 per month playing semi-professional basketball, and was able to send large amounts of money home to help her family. She also learned during this period that her athleticism was marketable—she could "sell" her talents to the highest bidder. She became a hustler of her own skills from this time forth and was a master at squeezing dollars out of her sports acumen.
Zaharias' basketball teammates at ECC were all exceptional athletes; several held national track-and-field records as well as being All-Americans in basketball. Babe gained All-American status in 1931 and 1932 and led her team to the national title. She also became involved in track-and-field events in Dallas during the basketball "off-season"—the javelin throw, hurdles, and high jump. Interviews with her former teammates reveal that Babe continued to be cocky and abrasive. Many of them found her inadequate as a team player. Significantly, after her Golden Cyclone playing days, Zaharias never again chose to compete in a team sport, preferring individual competition.
Thus it was that in 1932 the insurance company sponsored Babe as a one-woman team to compete in the AAU Track and Field meet in Evanston, Illinois. This meet also determined who would represent the United States in the 1932 Olympic Games to be held in Los Angeles. Boldly announcing to her competitors, "Ah'm gonna lick you single-handed," Zaharias went on to win five of the seven events she entered, setting several world and Olympic records. On several occasions, the judges delayed a start so that she could catch her breath in-between events. From that afternoon onward, her fame was national. The Dallas Morning News headline crowed: "Didrikson, Unaided, Wins National Track Championship: Babe Lands 30 Points to Outclass Nation's Best Feminine Teams." In fact, she had won 30 points to the next closest "team's" 22 points.
Thus, when Babe traveled with the Olympic team on the train to the Los Angeles Olympics, she was already a celebrity. At that time, medical experts and physical educators believed that women's physiology was potentially frail and needed to be preserved for reproductive motherhood. Because of these beliefs, women were allowed to compete in only three events—hence Babe's three-event Olympiad. In addition to winning the javelin toss, 80-meter hurdles ("this is where all the hedge-hopping paid off," she said), and receiving a gold/silver for the high jump, rumors abounded about her antics. Some said she climbed the outside wall of the girls' dormitory to snatch a souvenir Olympic flag. Then a 21-year-old (Babe routinely claimed she was 19; she thought her accomplishments would be more impressive if she was younger), she liked to perpetuate these stories of her own daring and difference.
After her Olympic victories, she was fêted and honored everywhere. Once again, she returned to playing with the Golden Cyclones; she also worked for one week as a harmonica-playing stage entertainer in Chicago. Although the pay was lavish, she yearned to be outdoors competing. To supplement her income and "cash in on her fame," she toured with the House of David, the all-male, all-bearded baseball team, putting on pitching exhibitions across the country. She also mock-boxed with then middleweight champion "Baby" Stribling, punted (during a staged photo shoot) for the Southern Methodist men's college football team, and toured in a one-month golf exhibition with the premier male professional golfer, Gene Sarazen. While this kept her busy and well paid between 1933 and 1935, she worried that her fame was waning. She tried bowling and tennis, but her status as an amateur was questioned and this blunted her ability to compete in either sport. Throughout these years, the press and public continued to speculate on her androgynous body form and unfeminine ways.
In 1938, Babe was a celebrity playing a golf match in Los Angeles when she was paired with George Zaharias, wrestler and sometime entrepreneur. They both claimed it was "love at first sight." George, wealthy and well known as the "Crying Greek from Cripple Creek" (Colorado), was a successful wrestling promoter. Within a few years, he abandoned his own lucrative career to manage Babe's. Together, they perpetuated the image of the happily married couple even after much evidence suggested theirs was a deteriorating and unfulfilling union.
When Babe regained her amateur status in 1943, women's golf was in need of a superstar. Her powerful game revolutionized golf. As one sportswriter said of her, "Babe Zaharias created big-time women's golf…. Her booming power game lowered scores and forced others to imitate her." Zaharias' gruelling practice sessions were deservedly legendary.
Despite her 1947 win of the British Women's Amateur (the first American to do so), her opportunities to earn a living at golf were meager. Since few professional tournaments existed for women, Babe and several other women golfers established the Ladies' Professional Golf Association (LPGA) to introduce more paying tournaments. The tour, sponsored by monies
from sporting goods companies, increased its purses, credibility, and the number of women able to eke out a living in golf. Zaharias held offices in the LPGA's hierarchy during the first several years of its operation and consistently ranked among the top money winners.
In 1953, Babe's golfing halted as she battled colon cancer in what became a recurring struggle. Zaharias erroneously believed herself cured because George and her "other mate," Betty Dodd , a promising golf protegée from San Antonio, Texas, who was Babe's devoted shadow, joined with physicians at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in shielding Babe from knowledge of the degree of her malignancy. She devoted herself to fund and consciousness raising for the disease while staging a dramatic athletic comeback a mere 14 weeks after her surgery. She was consequently honored by President Dwight Eisenhower at the White House, fêted by the Texas State Legislature and the American Cancer Society, voted the Comeback Athlete of the Year, and given numerous medical humanitarian awards.
Throughout her recurring illnesses which manifested as a herniated disc, then systemic cancer during 1955–56, Zaharias was inseparable from Dodd. Their relationship clearly replaced the emotional intimacy that had waned so dramatically between George and Babe. Dodd lived with the couple for the last six years of Babe's life. They were constant tour travel companions, music-making buddies, and a source of friction to George who had been replaced in Babe's affections. While this relationship was never admittedly sexual, it was undeniably the emotional and physical mainstay of Babe's later life. Only Dodd was permitted to assist Babe in her delicate and painful health regimens and only she shared Babe's daily life with her. Significantly, in her autobiography, Zaharias mentions Dodd only fleetingly as "my buddy," towards the end of her narrative. Their relationship has been greatly minimized due to cultural homophobia.
When Babe succumbed to cancer at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, Texas, on September 26, 1956, she left an unparalleled legacy as an athlete and medical humanitarian. Yet her life story has almost always been portrayed as harmonious, non-conflictual and ideally bonded to husband and sports peers. She wanted desperately to construct a culturally acceptable life story. In reality, hers was a life of struggle, disharmony, cultural conflict, and unapprovedof intimacy; this amidst much non-introspective fun-seeking. She brought a fierceness and lustiness to life that captivated and/or repelled those around her; most important, it fueled her competitiveness and unique character.
Burke, Vin. "Former Enterprise Sports Editor Tells Story of Babe Didrikson," in Beaumont Sunday Enterprise. May 3, 1970.
Cayleff, Susan E. "'Babe' Didrikson Zaharias' Personal and Public Battle with Cancer," in Texas Medicine. Vol. 82. September 1986, pp. 41–45.
——. The "Golden Cyclone": The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, 1911–1956. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Cheatum, Billye Anne. "A History of Selected Golf Tournaments For Women With Emphasis Upon The Growth And Development of The Ladies Professional Golf Association." Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Physical Education, Texas Woman's University, Denton, Texas, 1967.
Document *18.104.22.168. Babe Didrikson Zaharias Papers at the John Gray Library Special Collections, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas.
Johnson, Oscar, and Nancy Williamson. "Babe Part 3," in Sports Illustrated. October 1975, p. 48.
Zaharias, Babe Didrikson, as told to Harry Paxton. This Life I've Led: My Autobiography. NY: A.S. Barnes, 1955.
Johnson, Oscar, and Nancy Williamson. "Whatta-Gal": The Babe Didrikson Story. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1975.
Correspondence, oral histories, newsclippings, photos, memorabilia located at the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Special Collections, John Gray Library, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas.
Trophies, sports awards, medical humanitarian honors, sporting equipment, scrapbooks, Olympic memorabilia, ten-minute film version of her life located at the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Memorial Museum, Beaumont, Texas.
"Babe" (VHS, 120 minutes), fictionalized television movie, starring Susan Clark and Alex Karras, directed by Buzz Kulick, Felton-Rubin Productions, aired on CBS Television, October 23, 1975.
Susan E. Cayleff , author of The "Golden Cyclone": The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, 1911–1956 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995)